Monday Matters (September 20, 2021)

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Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.
-II Cor. 1:3-5
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.

-J.R.R.Tolkien

Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.
-Dylan Thomas

Blessed are those who mourn

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
-Matthew 5:4

Near the end of her life, I visited my grandmother in the hospital. I still picture her diminished state, that small body in such a big hospital bed. We talked about her life. Although she was in her mid-80’s, what she wanted to talk about was her son who died when he was five years old, when she was a young mother. She didn’t talk about the other three sons she raised so well, their vibrant lives. In her closing days, she remembered that particular loss. I realized that she had been in mourning over all those decades. It explained for me a bit of the sweet sadness I always saw in her eyes.

When I watched the 9/11 memorial service last week in lower Manhattan, and felt the heaviness of heart in recollection of my time in New York in those days, I listened to several thousand names being read, interrupted by brief tributes from relatives. Again and again, those relatives spoke of their lost loved ones and said, after 20 years: “We think about you every day.”

I suspect there are few who do not know what it means to mourn. We all know what it means to suffer loss. It’s a pain widely experienced, one that lingers. In his sermon, Jesus promises comfort. It’s a fitting follow-up to the promise of blessing for those who are poor in spirit, because mourning is really a matter of addressing a hole left by loss. It may defy understanding, but in the midst of it, Jesus promises blessed comfort.

What kind of comfort did he have in mind? Perhaps it was the comfort St. Paul speaks about at the beginning of a letter to the Corinthian church (See excerpt above). The psalmist speaks of the God who is present as refuge and strength. A favorite hymn speaks of Jesus who is all compassion, which literally means suffering along side. God, the Holy Spirit, is also described as the comforter, the one who comes along side. There is a promise of holy comfort, which is a blessing.

And God places us in community so that we can be present to comfort each other, so that as St. Paul says, we may comfort those around us with the comfort we have come to know in God’s gracious presence. Many times, when I’m trying to offer comfort to someone, I recall what was helpful to me when I was comforted. We pass it on. As we know comfort, we show comfort.

And the mourning Jesus focuses on may not simply be about the losses we feel in our own lives. It may also be about the losses that surround us, mourning for the state of the world, feeling its pain, the pain of refugees and asylum seekers, of victims of COVID, of those who care for them, the pain of victims of hurricanes and earthquakes, the pain of those subjected to racial hatred.

Where have you experienced mourning? Maybe you’re in the thick of that valley right now. How will you navigate that this week? How can you invite God, the holy comforter into that experience?

And then take a look around. Who do you know who carries such a weight? Can you be an instrument of blessedness that offers comfort? If you’re not sure how to do that, ask God to show you the way. It’s something disciples are called to do. And while you’re at it, say a prayer for those folks.

It will be a blessing. You will be a blessing.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 13, 2021)

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How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What is my poverty?’ Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! ‘How blessed are the poor,’ Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden.
– Henri J.M. Nouwen

There is a God-shaped vacuum in every man that only Christ can fill.
-St. Augustine

There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.
-Blaise Pascal

Poor in spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 5:3

Bad dad joke/priest joke alert: The young priest was told by his mentor: “Here’s the secret to a good sermon. You need a really good opening, and a really good conclusion, and not much in between.” You can try that out on your local cleric. Let me know how that goes. Thanks be to God, that secret doesn’t apply to the sermon before us, the Sermon on the Mount. But it is worth considering the way Jesus kicks off this sermon, according to Matthew.

He speaks first about the blessedness of poverty in spirit. If you ran across the phrase “poor in spirit” in some other context, what would come to mind? Maybe it suggests depression or dejection. Maybe it suggests a lack of enthusiasm, as in lack of team spirit, for which you might call Ted Lasso, not Jesus. Maybe it suggests joylessness, often associated with religious people, as in H.L.Mencken’s observation that a puritan is someone who is upset because someone somewhere is having a good time. In reflection on this first of the beatitudes over the years, I confess I haven’t always been sure what is meant by poor in spirit. I’ve heard a bunch of sermons (probably given some) that are all over the map and not entirely illuminating.

What I have found helpful is the rendering of this verse in some paraphrased versions which read something like this: Blessed are those who know their need of God. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether that’s excessively free translation, but if it’s not true, it ought to be. If we think of those in need of God, that’s something to which many people can relate.

St. Augustine and later Blaise Pascal noted that there’s a God shaped space inside each one of us. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until we rest in God’s presence. In the work we’ve done with congregations through RenewalWorks, we’ve noted the potent reality of that restlessness, an eagerness to grow in spirit driven by the sense that there is more.

And that’s a good starting point. Our liturgy knows that, as our daily services start with confession, recognizing ways we’ve fallen short, recognizing that we come together with our own spiritual deficit, not denying it or hiding it but noting it is there. Though it manifests itself in great variety, it is who we are. And the good news, is that this deficit is met with abundant grace.

In the eucharist, we come to the table after we have confessed, seeking to be reconciled to God and each other, recognizing that that is something we all need to do.

The first two steps in AA highlight a recognition of powerlessness over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable, and a coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

So we begin Jesus’ sermon with a statement of blessing for those who fall short in this way. Why is that a blessing? Perhaps because it is critical in stepping into the kingdom of heaven. In the coming weeks, we’ll note a variety of ways to experience blessing. When you look up the Greek word, it is translated as happy or fortunate. Maybe lucky. I’m glad the word blessed is used. It’s not always a happy moment to recognize that we are poor in spirit, that we need help. Sometimes we refer to it as a come to Jesus moment. It may not always feel fortunate.

But it is key to moving forward on a pathway of blessing. The great part is that it immediately places us in the kingdom of heaven. It’s not some arrival far off in the future. The kingdom of heaven can begin right now when we not only recognize that we need help, but also when we note that help is available. The psalmists knew that. Case in point: Our help is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 124.8). The people who clamored to get close to Jesus knew that. In the gospels, perhaps the folks who didn’t know it were the ones that presumed that they were already rich in spirit, thank you very much. They were those who thought God was really lucky to have them on the team.

Think this week about why the sermon on the mount begins in this particular way. Think about your own life, and when you’ve been in touch with what it means to be poor in spirit. And if you find that mysterious phrase resonates with your experience, see it not as judgment or failure but as occasion for grace to abound, an opening for all kinds of blessings in days ahead. It’s just the beginning.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Is my church too small for RenewalWorks to work?

 

We are sometimes asked the question: is my congregation too small to do RenewalWorks?

Experience has shown us that RenewalWorks process is most productive for congregations with average Sunday attendance of 45 and up. However, we know that no congregation is too small to focus on spiritual growth and we have some great resources for smaller congregations to share with you.


My Way of Love is a joint project with RenewalWorks and Presiding Bishop Curry’s office. It begins with each parishioner taking a very short online survey (based on the RenewalWorks spiritual life inventory). Each participant then receives an email with a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for growing spiritually and the opportunity to sign up to receive a personalized 8-week spiritual growth program via email tailored to where they are currently in their spiritual journey.

Churches have gathered small groups and even challenged their whole congregations to take this inventory and then spend some time together reflecting on their personal results. Participants can meet weekly to share their experience of the program: What are they finding new, exciting, troubling? Which suggestions are they implementing to deepen their spiritual lives?

Bishop Curry recently did the My Way of Love himself and loved it! (He discussed it with Scott Gunn, Forward Movement’s executive director.)

Although the email program is personalized for each participant, the group sharing creates a way for the overall church to come together around the idea of spiritual growth.  More information can be found here:  https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love/my-way-of-love/

The best part is—it’s free, a gift from Forward Movement and the Episcopal Church.

 

The second program we suggest for small groups and small congregations is Revive. This discipleship program is the perfect gift to offer the lay leaders who have poured out so much in service to your congregation. Revive is about transformation through spiritual formation. In just 10 months, this small-group program transforms leaders of practical church ministry into confident spiritual leaders who love God and participate in Christ’s ministry.

Thanks to the videos and extensive facilitator and participant guides, there is little prep work for the facilitator and can be convened online through zoom or in person.  The cost is $50 for a small church.

It is a beautiful program and participants report that it really changes their lives and causes them to grow spiritually in love of God and neighbor.

Information on Revive can be found here: https://revive.forwardmovement.org/

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help congregations of all sizes foster a culture of spiritual growth, and by spiritual growth, we mean growing in love of God and neighbor. Please contact us if this mission resonates with you, we would love to be a resource in this journey.

Monday Matters (September 6, 2021)

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The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
-Kurt Vonnegut
I shall not be overcome; God is with me. My awareness of God’s Presence may sound like magic. It may seem to some to be the merest childlike superstition, but it meets my need and is at once the source of my comfort and the heart of my peace.
-Howard Thurman
For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.
-Psalm 36:9
And now, what is my hope? O Lord, my hope is in you.
-Psalm 39:8

Prayer

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
-Matthew 5:1,2

Over the summer, I posted something on social media about prayer. In response, a person I don’t know offered an edgy description of his own spiritual journey. He said that he used to pray to God. He gave up on that because sometimes he got answers, and sometimes he didn’t. He decided to stop praying to God and instead he started praying to Joe Pesci. He said he got exactly the same results. That led him to conclude that prayer was over-rated, and most certainly not efficacious.

I’ve thought about his comments for several reasons. For one, I did appreciate his clear if pointed take on the spiritual life. I don’t agree with it and it’s not my experience of prayer. But it shows he takes it seriously. I prefer that to the point of view that regards spiritual practice as something sweet, regarded with complacency, hardly transformational, maybe a quaint social custom, hobby or extracurricular activity, or a box to be checked.

I also have thought about his comments because from time to time, I can find myself wondering if any of this could possibly true. Do I really believe that all of my life unfolds in the presence of the Holy One? All of it? That when I pray, a great personal cosmic force listens? I suspect I’m not the only one who has prayed fervently for something and not gotten the answer I wanted, or any answer at all. Do I really believe that love is at the center of everything? After I read the newspaper? Do I really believe that the creator of the universe became a person who walked this earth? Do I hold onto faith for nostalgia’s sake, wishing it were so but recognizing that evidence can point in the opposite direction, most especially when I look at the ways Christians treat other people?

Am I alone in these wonderings?

I could be wrong but in the end, I actually do believe that grace is the word. Not only that it is true, but that it is our hope. Maybe our only hope. If we give up on grace, we’re sunk. I hold on to Jurgen Moltmann’s question: Where would we stand if we did not take our stand on hope? So maybe I don’t believe 100% of the time, maybe sometimes I’m a functional atheist, but I join the prayer of the guy in Mark 9 who said “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” I fall back on a favored, savored Emily Dickinson quote: “We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour. It makes the faith nimble.”

My summer break from writing each week gave time to think about how amazing grace really is. I was blessed with the help of authors like William Stringfellow, Richard Rohr, Howard Thurman, Alexander Schmemann, Stephanie Spellers, and, God love him, Trevor Noah. I was renewed in my interest in what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. So what I propose to do for the coming weeks is to take a close look at what Jesus taught, hopefully with fresh eyes. Specifically, for the next bit of time, I want to use the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a window into what Jesus had in mind. Even more specifically, I want to focus on what Jesus intended for disciples, since according to Matthew, that was the audience for this sermon. And when he talked to them, he talks to us.

I don’t presume original insight. I’m no biblical scholar. I simply want to take these teachings, a bit at a time, offer my reflections as invitation for you to offer yours, and then to think about those insights as you make your way through a week. Tune in if that sounds interesting. Feel free to tune out if it doesn’t. That’s why God made unsubscribe.

We begin today with the first two verses of Matthew, chapter 5. We read that Jesus gathers disciples on a mountaintop for teaching (an echo of Moses providing teaching from Mt. Sinai). As we make our way through the next weeks, let Jesus be the teacher. See what it’s like to be his student, a learner, which after all, is what being a disciple is all about.

I don’t know about you, but these days, I need Jesus to be my teacher.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Discipleship Matters: News from RenewalWorks

A new chapter at RenewalWorks

As of July 1, RenewalWorks enters a new chapter, after eight years of ministry helping congregations focus on spiritual growth. We began this work in the hopes that it could be a helpful tool for the Episcopal Church. It was an experiment, a pilot project. As such, it involved a bit of stepping out in faith. Generous donors joined in taking that leap, for which I will always be grateful. Our ultimate goal was to find a home for this work. Good news! After working with about 300 congregations, and learning a lot in the process, our staff will now be supported by the Forward Movement operating budget, an indication that the work is sustainable, that it will continue and grow. The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn has described RenewalWorks as the Research and Development arm of Forward Movement. We’re excited that we can continue in that role.

This will involve some change in our staffing. I’m pleased to announce that Ms. Loren Dixon will take on the role of Director of RenewalWorks. Ms. Samantha Franklin will take on the role of Associate Director.Both Samantha and Loren have been at this work for years, and have proven to be effective and imaginative coordinators and collaborators with congregations. I will continue to be involved as a Senior Consultant, and will do what I can to promote this work. Under the leadership of Loren and Samantha, I know this ministry will grow in new and interesting ways.

We give thanks to God for how this effort has unfolded.
  • Our core ministry is the RenewalWorks process, with online inventory and subsequent workshops, providing helpful discernment for congregations as they seek to move forward. (We believe that this process can be especially helpful right now as we move out of COVID and seek understanding of where people are in their spiritual journeys.)
  • The process which we call Revive continues, with a focus on the heart of the leader, helping clergy and vestry and other lay leaders explore what it means to be spiritual leaders.
  • RenewalWorks-for-me (an individual inventory followed by a series of emails offering a personal spiritual plan) has been adopted by the Presiding Bishop’s office, in a new ministry called My Way of Love.
  • We’ll continue to offer monthly zoom gatherings (called RenewalWorks: Connect) with conversation about what discipleship looks like in the Episcopal Church.
  • And once we fully emerge from COVID, we plan to return to offering conferences to gather Episcopalians focused on discipleship.

As we move into a new and exciting chapter for RenewalWorks, we value your prayers along with any thoughts you might have about how this ministry can grow. We welcome you to spread the news about RenewalWorks to other congregations. As we mentioned, we believe it’s an especially valuable tool coming out of COVID. And Forward Movement will certainly welcome any financial support you can offer in days ahead. This is important work, transforming work for the Episcopal church. It is worthy of your support.

As Dag Hammarskjold wrote: For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes. Stay tuned for the next chapter of RenewalWorks! By God’s grace, it’s going to be great!

Monday Matters (June 28, 2021)

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I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
-Philippians 3:10-14

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
-Ephesians 4:11-16

Pointing to Christ

Days are as long as they will be all year. It’s great, isn’t it?

I don’t mean to be a downer, but from here on in, the days get shorter. I’m told there is liturgical significance to this. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist took place a few days ago (June 24), near the summer solstice, just when the days are beginning to shorten. Six months later, we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, after which days begin to lengthen, bit by bit. That says something about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, an interesting relationship for sure. Each had lots of disciples. Each had a powerful public presence. Each lived out a dynamic call from God. Each sought to usher in the reign of God.

But their relationship can be summed up in one verse from the Gospel of John (3:30). John the Baptist is asked about who he is and who Jesus is. He responds, speaking of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (just like the length of days after John’s birth). It’s a witness to the character of John the Baptist, a person of considerable ego strength who also understood humility as right-sized self-awareness. In Christian art, John is often depicted with extended arm and pointing finger. Where does he point? To Christ, and often to Christ on the cross. It’s not about him. In that way, he becomes a guide for us. What would it mean for our lives to point to Christ? We can do it in thought, word and action. We can do it in the affirmation that love wins. We can do it by seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

A few years ago, I was ordained on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Sure, it was a date convenient for the bishop, but it was also a day that was important to me because John the Baptist provides an amazing example for ministry. He points to Christ. And that is something I aspire to in ministry, which includes writing these Monday messages.

Which brings me to this bit of news for weekly readers. Starting on July 1, I’m going to take a break from writing each week. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years. I’ll take July and August as a time to refresh and recalculate and reflect on this weekly message. I’ll think about whether the messages have run their course, whether there might be a new direction, whether I should just keep on keeping on. Right now, I’m planning on starting up again in September for anyone who is interested.

I’m honored beyond belief that people have actually read these pieces. I’m well aware that some of my messages have been more coherent than others. It’s been helpful for me to write them for the sake of my own clarity about the mysteries of our faith. A friend who taught composition to college freshmen told me about a time when a student came up and said he had a great idea for a story. The teacher said: “You don’t have an idea for a story until you put it down on paper.” Thank you for the opportunity to put ideas down “on paper”, to share with you each Monday morning.

This break from writing Monday Matters coincides with a shifting role with RenewalWorks. The ministry will now be directed by my two colleagues (Loren Dixon and Samantha Franklin). I’m excited to see what new vision they bring to this work. I will continue to be engaged, serving as advisor and consultant, helping with RenewalWorks as they see best.

As I take a break, let me express my hope that in the work I’ve done, both writing on Mondays and also my work with RenewalWorks, there has been some kind of pointing to Christ. As Alan Gates, predecessor at my church in Illinois (and now bishop of Massachusetts) said: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” I confess that I wrote in part to gratify ego that someone would actually read them. Folks have often been generous in kind comments. Ego is always part of the picture. Got to watch that. My wife tells me that ego is an acronym. It stands for edging God out.

Having admitted that, we can all make our best efforts to point to Christ, even if there are mixed motives. Thanks be to God for the model of John the Baptist, who was clear about who he was and was clear about who Jesus was (and knew there was a difference).

Let me leave you with this question: How will you point to Christ this week? This summer? How will you do that in thought, word and deed in all the days ahead? See you in September.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (June 21, 2021)

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Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Amen.
-Richard of Chichester

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
-Thomas Merton

Follow me

At a gathering last week, I was given opportunity to reflect on the spiritual path, and specifically on what it means to try to navigate that path as a follower of Jesus. That led me to think of how many times Jesus meets someone and says: “Follow me.” A bit of research indicated that there are 22 occasions described in the gospels where that happens. I can’t think of anything Jesus says more often. That means it’s probably worth paying attention to.

Jesus called the first disciples saying: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Note that the gospels never record the disciples catching any fish without Jesus’ help. In this call to follow, Jesus seems to say: “I’ll take who you are and what you do, even if you’re not that great at it.” He puts those disciples to work for the Jesus movement, transforming their vocation to serve the way of love.

Jesus called Matthew the tax collector, simply saying: “Follow me.” Right after that, Jesus went to the local pub with Matthew’s creepy, seedy, duplicitous friends. The clergy of the day passed a resolution condemning such consorting. But when Jesus called Matthew, Jesus seems to say: “I’ll take you where you are, no matter what you’ve done. I’ll meet you with grace.”

Jesus called an unnamed person, saying “Follow me.” The person responded by saying: “I’ll get right on it, but I have some other things I need to attend to first.” (e.g., burying a family member.) It may sound harsh, but Jesus seems to say: “Don’t let the stuff of life get in the way of following me, even the good stuff.” That’s probably something for good church folk to pay attention to, as we fill up schedules with lots of really important and noble things and find we’ve not got time or energy for the relationship of discipleship.

Jesus called a rich young ruler, saying “Follow me.” This young man had done everything right. He was deeply religious. Jesus seemed to like the guy. He commended him for his faithfulness. But Jesus also noted that there was one missing element. The young man had to give up his possessions. Apparently, that was a bridge too far. The young man went away sad, and Jesus seemed sad too. I wonder what happened to the guy.

Most of these stories come early on in the gospels, as Jesus is putting his team together. One of the stories comes at the end of the gospel of John. It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with Peter. A mirror image of Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus, Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. Peter affirms that he does love Jesus. He is then commissioned to care for Jesus’ sheep. The episode ends with Jesus saying: “Follow me.” It’s the way that Peter steps into a future that may be unclear. Maybe that’s the way we’re meant to step into the future as well.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that we do not know what the future holds. Aspects of the pandemic and coincident crises of economic challenge and racial reckoning may not, could not have been anticipated. As we daily step into an unknown future (Who knows what will happen as soon as you stop reading this?), maybe the best thing for us to do is to hear Jesus’ call to us. He simply says: “Follow me.”

Then we get to figure out what on earth that means. It becomes a reminder that at the core, our spiritual path as part of the Jesus movement, is the truth that we are not alone. It’s an invitation to a living relationship with the Holy One. Jesus comes to us with truth and grace, truth about who we are and the challenges we face, grace to promise presence with us. That relationship, that act of following is about knowing what he teaches, practicing what he preaches. It’s about embracing his call to service, which helps us see who he is. It’s about a life of prayer, which is really conversation which involves as much listening as talking. It’s a life sustained by bread and wine, holy communion.

It’s true that we do not know what the future holds. But in this journey of faith, we claim to know who holds the future. That Holy One leads us in the way of love. All we need to do is follow.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (June 14, 2021)

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Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

-Psalm 51

 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

-Luke 19:1-10

 

I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset.

-The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

 

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
– Anne Lamott

Judgement

I’ve been spending a bit of time in New York City of late, which is great. And it has reminded me of an experience I had when living there a few years ago. The observation came on occasions when I was driving a car in the city. I remember coming to an intersection with a green light. I intended to make a turn. Invariably, as I sought to make the turn, there would be a pedestrian taking his or her sweet time to cross the street. I guess it was their right, annoying as that felt. After all, they had a walk signal. There was nothing to do but wait, despite cars behind me beginning to honk. I remember thinking how inconsiderate pedestrians (as a group of human beings) were in New York. Didn’t they realize they were holding up traffic? Couldn’t they pick up the pace? Did they think their slow pace was more important that other people’s schedules, specifically mine?

Then I would park the car and instantly become a pedestrian. Role reversal. And when I came to an intersection, I would take my sweet time crossing the street, even if it frustrated drivers and elicited honking. It was my right. I remember thinking how inconsiderate drivers were (as a group of human beings). And why were they driving anyway? Too good for a bus or subway? Didn’t they care about their carbon footprint?

All of which is to say that I noticed how easy it is for me to make judgments about other people. Beyond that, it is easy for me to regard the other as opponent. In many ways, it’s my default position. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Weirdly, in my case, in a matter of minutes, I became the person I had previously viewed with disdain.

Travel of all kinds will do that, whether it’s in an airport or in traffic. Road rage shows that to be true. If I’m late for a plane, I’m angry if they don’t hold the door open for me. But if I’m on time for the plane, I’m angry if they hold the door for someone else who should have been on time. If I’m made to wait a little bit on line at a store, I can make all kinds of judgments about the capabilities and character of the person behind the cash register. Maybe Covid has exacerbated the crankiness. But it’s always been there.

A similar dynamic happens on social media. It’s easy to express anger, irritation, fueled by some prejudice, some broad stroke perspective on the other. There’s often a thoughtless, thuggish character to these communications, even among church folk. Our political system does that on steroids these days, fueled by news channels that paint in broad strokes. It happens in churches of all places. We make judgments about people of other denominations, theological slants, liturgical preferences, worship styles, dress codes. All of these tensions and divisions happen at least in part because there is no real meaningful human interaction, no relationship, no place for empathy, no effort to listen, no practice of compassion (which literally means suffering with). As St. Paul asked: who will deliver us?

My observations from the streets of New York remind me of what Jesus said in the king’s English: Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye shall judge, ye shall be judged. (Matthew 7:1) If we live life in a judgmental frame of mind, we may well find judgment visited upon us.

But is there an alternative? The baptismal covenant helps. Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Respect the dignity of every human being. The teaching of Jesus, echoed throughout the New Testament, helps. That teaching issues a call to love not only our friends but our enemies.

Remember the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who apparently ripped off a lot of his neighbors. (The story is printed in the column on the left.) He met Jesus and his life turned around. But as Jesus grabbed lunch with Zacchaeus, the religious leaders of the day criticized, judging Zacchaeus and Jesus in the process. Jesus responds: He, too, is a son of Abraham.

What would it all look like if we could view each other, in traffic, in church, in households, in the body politic, if we could treat each other as Abraham’s children, each and all of us flawed, each and all of us blessed by God? Can you join me in working on that this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect is a monthly online conversation series with Jay Sidebotham, Director of RenewalWorks and other thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.
Our monthly conversations will resume in September. Recordings of past sessions can be viewed here. Past presenters include:
  • Doyt Conn
  • Dawn Davis
  • Ryan Fleenor
  • Jerusalem Greer
  • Scott Gunn
  • Chris Harris
  • Rob Hirschfeld
  • Edwin Johnston
  • Lisa Kimball
  • Tina Pickering
  • Tim Schenck
  • Stephanie Spellers
  • Claire Woodley
  • Dwight Zscheile

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (June 7, 2021)

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An excerpt of a poem by Howard Thurman

Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar!
Brood over our spirits, Our Father,
Blow upon whatever dream Thou hast for us
That there may glow once again upon our hearths
The light from Thy Altar.
Pour out upon us whatever our spirits need of shock, of lift, of release
That we may find strength for these days –
Courage and hope for tomorrow.
In confidence we rest in Thy sustaining grace
Which makes possible triumph in defeat, gain in loss and love in hate.
We rejoice this day to say:
Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar.

The Collect for the Holy Eucharist, p. 252 in the Book of Common Prayer

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved

As a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given.

As those who are chosen, blessed, broken and given, we are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.”

‘You are the Beloved’, and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.”

What did you miss?

Yesterday in church, we observed the Feast of Corpus Christi. It’s a good follow-up to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, with its focus on God’s holy presence with us in the eucharist.

Yesterday in church, I celebrated the eucharist for the first time in too many months. That was after 30 years of celebrating the eucharist multiple times each week. It was moving to stand at the altar again. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it, or how important it was to me. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous about stepping into that presiding role again, wondering first if I would remember what to do, and second, wondering if I would melt.

We can never forget the pain inflicted by this pandemic over the past months. First and foremost, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Months ago, on my office wall I hung a copy of the front page of the NY Times the day they printed just a portion of the names of the first 100,000 who died. It was shocking. I didn’t want to get used to that shock. We’re now approaching 600,000 in this country and countless more around the world. Taking that all in is beyond comprehension. Stop right now for a moment of silence in remembrance.

And that is only one aspect of the loss. Children have lost a year of school. I suspect they’ll always be affected by that loss. Children in communities that lacked resources have been especially hard hit. Brave healthcare workers and others who kept us going will be shaped by this experience. There’s been widespread economic upheaval. As I walk the streets of New York, so many livelihoods have been taken away. Amidst it all, it has been a year of racial reckoning that causes us to realize how much we are missing as a community

Amidst the loss and longing, there are lessons. There are glimpses of what we have come to see as important. Community. Kindness. Care. There are discoveries about what we have missed. There are glimpses of new and deeper meanings that I hope will bring me to a new place in the days ahead. What have been those discoveries for you? For me, one of them is appreciation of the eucharist in my own spiritual life.

As I was thinking about the eucharist, my thoughts turned to the four verbs in the liturgy. The bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. (For a beautiful, wise and gracious exploration of these verbs, pick up Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved.)

I have missed taking the bread. In the eucharist, we place something basic, everyday at the center. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as something we can offer to God for holy transformation.

I have missed blessing the bread. In the eucharist, we ask God to bless that very basic thing, to make it holy. It is God’s work. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as an opportunity for God’s blessing. Perhaps we can extend that blessing to others, especially those who drive us nuts or wish us ill.

I have missed breaking the bread. In the eucharist, we recognize that God works in us in our brokenness, in our need for healing, a need that is universal. After Covid, as we come back, maybe eyes will be opened wider to the brokenness that surrounds us, and see that crack as a place for God’s light to shine through.

I have missed giving the bread. In the eucharist, we share that which is taken, blessed and broken. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can grow in generosity. As the liturgy for ordination puts it, we nourish God’s people from the riches of God’s grace. Not our own grace, our own magnificence, but the boundless grace of God, broader than the measure of our minds.

Take time today to think about what you’ve missed. Maybe it has to do with your spiritual life, in one way or another. Maybe not. As you reflect, say prayers for those whose loss has been greatest. Then take time to think about what you’ve learned. This kind of reflection is a way of citing what we value. Those lessons provide opportunity for hope, as we make our way back into community. It’s hope that this season of brokenness will lead to new life, that it will be blessed and shared, as in the words of Howard Thurman, we place our lives and problems on God’s altar.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (May 31, 2021)

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Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
-Philippians 2:5-11

What do you think?

I came across a verse last week which I’d never noticed before: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” (Psalm 119:37) Centuries ago, I don’t know what the psalmist had in mind when writing about what was worthless to watch. Maybe the psalmist was predicting contemporary entertainment, social media, 24/7 news channels. Your guess is as good as mine.

The verse caught my eye because there’s a lot floating around which is available to watch, but that is probably not worth watching. There’s a lot floating around that is not edifying, to borrow a New Testament phrase. It may be okay, but it doesn’t build up. It’s not constructive. What we watch, what we pay attention to, what we think about shapes who we are. Don’t just take my word for it. Consider various scriptures.

Proverbs 23:7 for instance: “For as (a person) thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) St. Paul coached the early church to think about what they think about: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Those truths have been picked up by others. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “You are what you think all day long.” William James said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Jean Yves Leloup, writing about monkey-mind as part of his discussion of the spiritual dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity wrote: “The ego is like a clever monkey, which can co-opt anything, even the most spiritual practices, so as to expand itself.” Even Winnie the Pooh got into the act: “Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?”

Think about what you think about. Think about what you watch. Is it worth it? Is it worthwhile? How is that shaping you? Maybe our culture’s focus on mindfulness has to do with setting an intention about where we give our interior life. We all have to decide what’s going to occupy our thinking. It’s easy to let that interior life be a place where resentments and grievances incubate. It’s easy to let anxiety dominate our thought waves. It’s easy to give into images that are not healthy or holy, let alone satiable. Toxicity abounds these days, easily accessible, at our fingertips. But we are not without options.

As St. Paul invited early Christians to focus on what is pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, we can always turn our thoughts to praise. Worship is really a matter of worth-ship. We can always turn our thoughts to thanksgiving, finding the healing power of an attitude of gratitude. We can always turn our thoughts to good intention towards others, even those who’ve done us dirt. Maybe St. Paul told us to pray without ceasing as an alternative to plotting revenge on the jerk who just cut us off in traffic. In all of life, we have the chance to turn our attention to the mind of Christ (see above). We have agency in this. And if we feel like we need help in this, we’re told that such help is available as well.

In Psalm 51, the psalmist asks God to create a clean heart, to renew a right spirit within us. As Jesus addressed the anxiety which comes our way, he reminded us to consider the lilies, the birds of the air, in other words, pay attention to something worth watching. (Matthew 6) As St. Paul contemplated the grace of God, he invited early Christians to a renewing of their minds.

Think about what you think about this week.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.